Sitting in a sparsely decorated office with a few, passed-down awards and trinkets from presidents past, Palomar College President Joi Lin Blake gushes over photos from a recent trip spent in Costa Rica.
In her signature bob and monochromatic outfit of black and white, the self-diagnosed shopaholic quickly flips through photos of her trip in Central America, stopping on a photo of monkeys she encountered on the trip as she exclaims in adoration for their affectionate faces and of photos of her zip lining through the rainforest.
The trip has been in the works for years, said Damon Bell, Vice President of Student Services and Achievement at Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington. It wasn’t until spring break that the two friends, along with others, took the trip down south.
“She’s gone and swam with dolphins, she’s zip lining, she’s done all of those kind of things you would think someone in her position wouldn’t do or would be afraid to do,” Bell said.
Blake, who took over as president in mid-2016, was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at age 17, a chronic autoimmune disease that attacks the body’s tissues and inflames the joints, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“She has not let her disability slow her down at all. In fact she looks for things she’s excited about and she never says, ‘Oh, you know I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it.’ She finds a way she can do it,” Bell continued.
Blake, the oldest of two siblings—Mark Blake, a San Francisco Deputy City Attorney, and Timothy Blake, a pastor—grew up in a military family. She was born in Guam and spent her youth in Japan and Denver, Colo. before settling in San Diego.
When Blake was first diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, she had to drop out of Grossmont College for a semester due to surgeries on her knee and fell into a depression that her mother, Annette Blake, quickly shook her out of.
“I remember her sitting on the couch with her arm around me crying and saying, ‘I wish I could take it away,’ and there was nothing she could do. ‘If I could just take it away I would. What do you need me to do?’” Joi said.
Her mother would be there every step of the way, acting as a hype man for Blake and the rest of the family. “If you needed a fan, my mom was the one you wanted to be your fan,” she said.
Mark said that, “When she started [working in education] it kind of was a leap fall and I think the reason why it went so quickly for her was because she always had it in her mind very early.” This goal was a product of their mother and of the times they were living in, he said.
“At that time, the doors were opening for African Americans to go to college (due to affirmative action), the doors were opening so my parents could go back to school and my mother was a big dreamer and a big dreamer for us, in other words she would set the tone for, ‘You two can be special,’” Mark said.He added that both their mother and father had masters degrees, but had dreamed more for them.
Bell and Blake met at San Diego Mesa College in 2006, where she was hired on as the dean of counseling and Bell had recently became the college’s vice president of student services.
“It’s been over 10 years now, it’s hard to believe it’s been that long,” Bell said.
Mark said that Joi and their mother would always discuss getting their doctorate in education. “She always had it in her mind about being Secretary of Education and so I think she knew she was going to do it, it was just a question of when, when she was going to get her advanced degree,” Mark said.
It wasn’t until her time at Mesa College did Joi look into getting her advanced degree by the mentorship of Richard Rose, who would later become Modesto Junior College’s President in 2006. Rose mentored Joi and Bell on becoming college presidents and the ways in which to pursue such a goal.
“I knew that that was in her future,” Bell said of Blake becoming Palomar’s president in July 2016.
Within the first few months of acting President at Palomar, Blake suffered a devastating loss. “They actually called me at [Palomar] to tell me my mom passed away,” Joi said. From talking to her mother everyday on her way to San Marcos and seeing her every Sunday for scheduled hair appointments and dinner, Annette’s neighbors were the ones to break the news.
“It was just devastating because even when we look at her picture now we are like, ‘She was healthy. How did her heart just stop?’” Joi said.
“She demonstrated a strength during that time that really kind of helped other people kind of hold it together,” Bell said. “You can’t be strong always. You can’t always be the strongest person, but even when she’s been vulnerable she still has kind of a quiet strength about her.”
On their Costa Rican trip, Bell and Joi’s friends reminded her to take a picture with her mother’s purse. Joi had brought it on the trip because of how muchAnnette had always wanted to go to the country.
Joi can be viewed as role model for many students on campus and an actualization of Palomar’s student demographic: a young African-American woman, a military kid, disabled, Spanish-speaking, a former community college student who was on both academic probation and the dean’s list, a transfer student to a state school and a San Diego native; but above all else Bell says Joi is a visionary and an example for female African-American college presidents in the nation.
“I never really said this before but she kind of reminds me of a Rosa Parks type personality: really quiet, but strong; strong beyond belief.”